In the first pages of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Crossroads, he introduces us to Russ Hildebrandt, a man who soon after berates himself as a “fatuous, obsolete, repellent clown.” Three years earlier, Russ, an associate minister from a strong Mennonite background, was expelled from his church youth group — for his uncoolness, he claims. Now, two days before Christmas 1971, he is nursing his wounded pride by lusting after a parishioner, a sexy widow named Frances. Over the next several hundred pages, naïve and self-deceiving Russ remains insensible to the desires of his wife Marion, who makes plans to reunite with her old flame and rediscover her old, uninhibited self. Both parents, in turn, are oblivious to their four children, as the eldest three begin to fall into disrepair in various historically appropriate ways.
Like much of Franzen’s fiction, Crossroads (out October 5) is narrated in the third person, in chapters that rotate between family members, each of whom has almost no idea what the others are up to. The first book of a three-part “super-novel,” it is preoccupied not only with the difficulty of wanting to be good amid the rising tides of temptation and doubt, but whether being an essentially good person and wanting to be perceived as one are incompatible desires. What separates true conviction from mere performance? The gulf between action and intention makes Franzen’s characters skittish about the integrity of their moral character and the strength of their commitments to others. “If you’re smart enough to think about it, there’s always some selfish angle,” argues Perry, the Hildebrandts’ second-youngest child, a brilliant, detached teenager who sees ill intent everywhere he turns.
Franzen spoke to me from his very bright and very bare kitchen in Santa Cruz, where he lives with the writer and editor Kathryn Chetkovich. (“I guess I could call her my ‘domestic partner,’” he said, “but I feel like I should be dismounting from a horse.”) Perhaps because I had just finished Crossroads, there were moments during the interview when I couldn’t dispel the disapproving, combative feeling that Franzen himself was intent on coming across as a good man. He seemed a little too reluctant to contradict me, a little too determined to prove his feminist bona fides. But my suspicions were dissolved by his humor, his thoughtfulness, his shy sense of reciprocity — not many interviewees think to read the writing of their interviewers — and his impassioned defense of novels and their enduring ethical function. He is earnest, unaffected, and, at times, startlingly unguarded.
What I found, in other words, is a mind consonant with the mind that also produced The Corrections, Freedom, and Purity — books that have often been called systems novels or family novels, but which Franzen refuses to align with any genre. For him, they are novels, pure and simple. Each one counterpoises an intense maximalism — voluminous sentences and points of view, grand themes and historical, geographical sweep — with an absolute minimalism of change in the characters’ psychology. While Franzen’s characters feel resoundingly alive, change for them is humbling, hard-won, incremental, and fast fading, so much so that when one measures the distance between the beginning and the end of his books, it can be difficult to understand how people can suffer so much shame, humiliation, thwarted desire, and disappointment and have so little to show for it.
Halfway through our conversation, I found myself saddened by the fact that we were speaking within the transactional limits of a promotional interview, with the caution that clings to its preordained roles. “I hope this has been moderately fun for you,” he said as our call neared its end. “God bless you for doing this.”
I have some very official questions for you.
Very little was explained to me: “Merve wants to talk about the family novel and genre,” or something like that.
No, I don’t — or that description is not quite right.
Great. Because I was like, “Okay, could I just redo the last 30 years and have done a ton more reading in that subject, so I could actually speak intelligently on it.”
This isn’t a test. I’m not testing you!
It’s a weird thing. I bluffed my way through college and escaped from the academy just before I would have had to become a serious reader of the literature. And when I write, I continue to fake it. That was actually a great attraction of being a writer is you can pretend to possess bodies of knowledge that you don’t actually possess. The thought of having a conversation with somebody who has taught the reading was a little daunting.
But I disagree with you. I think you are an attentive reader of 19th-century novels, in particular. Consider the supra-title of Crossroads: A Key to All Mythologies, which I assume is a reference to George Eliot’s Middlemarch and to her character Edward Casaubon’s attempt to link all belief systems to Christianity. In that novel, “the key to all mythologies” suggests negative things: a stalled and unfinished work; a pointless and pedantic scholarly vanity; an old man obstructing a young woman’s sexual and intellectual self-determination. Why saddle your novel with these associations?
That phrase came into common usage in this household from Kathy, who with her ex-husband, whenever they would meet a crackpot — the kind who carried around laminated literature that he would press on people — would say, “Yeah, that man has the key to all mythologies.” So, the phrase was already in my head. We were using it.
More seriously, I have been thinking a lot about the inescapable nature of religion. Even if it is uncoupled from transcendent beliefs or metaphysical structures, everyone still organizes their life around something that can’t be proved. I would say this goes particularly for the virulent atheists. It had been building in me for a long time, a wish to write about the fundamentally irrational basis for everything we think and do and espouse. And obviously, that phrase came to mind because if everyone has a mythology, it’s only a matter of listing what they are, and suddenly you’re thinking of a trilogy of novels.
Of course, there is the fact that Casaubon dies in Middlemarch before he finishes his project. And undertaking writing three books in my 60s, I thought, “Well, that’s a funny little joke.”
Finally, there was the fact that I’ve been quoted, out of context, that I was done writing novels or that I was only going to do one more. And it seemed important to go forth with an announcement of a last novel that in fact was three novels just to squish out that misconception.
The interesting thing to me about religion in many 19th-century novels — not only Eliot’s novels, but also Tolstoy’s — is that they raise the question not only of what it means to be good, but what happens when you want so badly to be good, according to doctrine, that you end up doing thoughtless or hurtful things to others. How do we put God’s teachings into action in our grubby, damaged lives? Does this conflict within religious thought interest you?
I suspect this is not going to be the last time that your question is a richer thing than my answer. I am singularly uninterested in theology. I’m not uninterested in the Bible, both Testaments. I think the Gospels are an incredibly powerful document. But if you go to the original source, the Gospels, there’s only one commandment that matters, which is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “Yeah, all these other things are important. But that’s the key thing.”
My approach to religion, or the way I was thinking about it in Crossroads, was as an experience, particularly an emotional experience. That will come with certain structures like for the character of Marion: a notion of good and evil, a notion of being punished for your sins, a notion of the reality of sin, which was part of the attraction of Catholicism for her. She early on contrasts that Catholic notion of guilt with Protestant guilt, which is something like just liberal guilt. It’s kind of a watered-down thing, like: Try to be nice to poor people.
It wasn’t my conscious intention, but I think I produced a book that has essentially no theology in it. Even when we go back and look at the Mennonites, we are looking at people who wanted to be radical, wanted to return to what they saw as the true Christianity as it was expressed by the very first Christians recounted in the Book of Acts. That’s about a way of living. It’s about a certain kind of humility and contemplation, a disengagement from the world, rather than about a list of specific things you should and shouldn’t do. I think the questions for me are, am I a good person? What can I do to be a better person?
I don’t think people are, by and large, saying, “I want to be good according to some external standard.” I think they’re wrestling with it in a more personal and specific way. I mean, Russ in Crossroads does acknowledge that being unfaithful to your wife is doctrinally forbidden. But he thinks, “Yeah, but you’re supposed to love God, and you’re supposed to take joy in creation.” He acknowledges the doctrine only to dismiss it, really, in his own moral reckoning.
The topic of infidelity makes me think a little about your introduction to the 1999 reissue of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters from 1970, which is one of my favorite novels.
Thank you for saying that. I’m glad to have company there.
In all your novels, like in Desperate Characters, marriage is the domain where our moral character gets tested; the domain in which how we imagined we would behave when placed in certain situations suddenly and frighteningly looks very different from the ways we actually behave. Why, for you, is marriage the situation where morality repeatedly gets tested and fails?
Not to quote myself, but I’ll quote myself. There is a line in Purity to the effect of, “Don’t talk to me about hatred if you’ve never been married.” You have to separate marriage as a legal contract from marriage as a personal project to spend the rest of your life with someone. For me, it’s part of a larger attraction to all kinds of family relationships as a domain for drama.
So much is optional: If you don’t like your friends, you can stop being friends with them. The essence of consumer society is a choice and changing your mind: You don’t like that, okay, go do this. It’s particularly true in a very mobile place like America: You don’t like New York, you move to California. But you can’t move away from your mom. And you cannot move away from your spouse, unless you get divorced. And because you can’t escape it, you have individual people with their individual personalities that are constantly grating on others. And that’s just fun to write about.
I feel like I could almost answer any of your questions by saying, “Yeah, that’s just fun to write about.” As a novelist, I’m all about fun. And fun for me is a scene where two people want different things very badly. Excitement ensues. So, for the second time, I feel like your question may have been more interesting than my answer.
Here’s a question that I don’t think you can answer with, “Because it’s fun” — or you could, but it would be unsatisfactory. Most of your previous novels have long stretches of remembrance of characters’ past lives, but their present is largely contemporaneous with our own. This novel begins in December 1971 and ends in 1974. Why did you decide to set it in the past?
I had the wicked thought: People think I’m a family novelist. I’m not really a family novelist. But maybe, finally, I’ll write a book about a family. And to me, a family novel spans generations. You need to see how patterns replicate themselves. I think I knew that there would be a disaster with one of the children in Crossroads, and there were some disasters in my own family in the early ’70s. If any event in my childhood could actually be called traumatic, it was the horrible fight between my father and my brother Tom in 1970, which resulted in Tom running away from home and disappearing. It was very much a clash between my brother’s counterculture and my parents’ conservatism, and it kind of blew the family apart. The most important decade of my life, and I had never set any fiction there.
I started writing a little more than a year into the Trump administration. One of the factors that inclined me toward breaking the book into three was that I could write an entire novel set in the past and not have to deal with the present so long as Trump was president. It felt like we were in a moment here in this country that I could not make sense of in real time. And that if I tried, as much as I’m committed to not letting my political views inform my fiction, I would have succumbed to my rage and dismay at everything that Trump represented for this country. It was just the time to be looking back. It was a kind of escape and an instinct.
I was thinking about that mid-’70s moment today, because of the Supreme Court’s refusal to block Texas’s prohibition of most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Crossroads ends with a pregnancy soon after Roe v. Wade is decided. It features well-intentioned white liberals going to Black churches on the South Side in the years after the Chicago riots. That moment marked a kind of retreat from the possibility of genuinely radical politics in the United States. It is interesting to hear you say that you wanted to escape from the present political moment and turn to the moment that some would argue gave birth to 2016 and its aftermath.
Well, and Roe v. Wade did galvanize the Evangelicals and push them decisively into the right wing of American politics. The early ’70s was a time when you started to see the first young people who were actually more conservative than their parents. Russ and Marion are good mid-century liberals. Russ in particular is deeply involved in civil rights and in protesting the Vietnam War. And the kids are kind of dealing with the aftermath of that. Given that I was interested in writing about religion, it was attractive for me to go back to a time before Christianity became almost a dirty word in liberal circles because it only meant Jerry Falwell, or the Moral Majority, or the anti-choice, raging base that the Republicans could always count on. It meant going back to a time when in fact, the religious were at the forefront of the progressive movement in this country.
Do you have strong judgments of recent fiction that tried to tackle the Trump administration or felt compelled to put the novel in the service of responding to political crises?
I think a couple of George Saunders stories have, in his hilarious and oblique way, taken the temperature of the moment. But I’m such a partisan of the novel, I don’t want it subordinated to anything. I do not want to be the little dog yapping after the garbage truck of history.
This follows from what became my watchword as a novelist: a line from a letter Don DeLillo wrote to me in the mid-’90s. I always hesitate to quote it because he wrote it in gendered language. I’m struggling to figure out how to make it as elegant without saying “he.” I think probably DeLillo himself struggled to find a way to say it not using the word “he,” but he didn’t, because it was more elegant just to say, “The writer leads, he doesn’t follow.” Whether you are trying to write a novel that comes to terms with 9/11 or a novel that addresses the existential threat that climate change represents, that’s subordinating the novel to something else. I’m particularly averse to subordinating it to my own personal politics. If I were to do anything, I would use a novel to challenge my own politics.
Within the novel, character should not follow from concept. The concept should be discovered from character. If characters are being created for illustrative purposes or representative purposes, you’re kind of fucked, because characters are so infinitely more interesting than the headlines of the day.
But you’re not not interested in the headlines of the day. There’s certainly an engagement with the idea of politics and what its proper relationship to art should be in your novels. Do you ever think of your novels as novels of ideas?
I think we can all agree that The Brothers Karamazov is a novel of ideas, and the novel succeeds in being one of the greatest things ever written in spite of the schematic nature of the four sons. How much more conceptual can you get? And of course, Dostoyevsky was such a great novelist that those became really interesting characters in spite of the schematic nature of their definition.
I like it when a novel builds a whole world that you feel at home in and that has a form, a structure, a feel. And maybe what you’re referring to as ideas in my books are more about the architecture of that world. Like in The Corrections, there is an architecture having to do with consumerism, there’s an architecture having to do with brain chemistry. And yes, a world does have ideas in it. I can do that kind of thing so easily. If that’s all writing a novel were, I could have written 40 novels. I have a mind trained by writing papers for school and taking tests and if you want a concept, I can give you a concept. But it’s just not where the action is. The concepts get sketched out in the two days it takes me to write a proposal for a novel. And then the characters get built over two or more horrible long years.
How horrible are they?
They’re just miserable, because I’d rather be writing, and it’s just day after day of withheld gratification. Every once in a while, I get an idea and that day is less bad. But the best day of taking notes and trying to think about character and story is not as good as a mediocre day of writing.
Who are your favorite creators of character?
Do you know The Man Who Loved Children?
I have not read The Man Who Loved Children, but I’m ordering it now.
I have written about it, and I have remained confounded that it is not universally regarded as canonical. It’s Christina Stead’s great novel from the mid-20th century. It has three world-class characters. Most novelists don’t produce any world-class characters. There are three in that one book. It seems to me an undeniably feminist text; I don’t understand why it’s not canonical in women’s studies programs.
There’s Tolstoy, of course. Faulkner — no slouch. Faulkner — pretty terrific, actually. Ferrante, of course. Those two giant female characters in the Neapolitan novels in particular.
I would be remiss if I did not ask you whether you’re a Lila or Lenù.
I’m definitely a Lenù, except even more insipid compared to my Lila.
Simply because it’s another one of those mid-century novels that I think is still underappreciated, I have to mention Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. I’m mentioning life-changing books for me. It took me a long time to realize that that is what I do: I’m a novelist of character. I was conscious of the problem of how to create a good character for a long time. But it fully rising to consciousness — that took a while. Of course, that increased the pressure to continue to somehow find large characters or develop large characters. Oh, I could throw in Dostoyevsky as well. So, let’s say Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Stead, Ferrante, Laxness. That’s not bad.
Since we’ve been discussing Tolstoy, do you know John Berger’s great novel G., about a Don Juan figure wandering around Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century? There’s this moment in the novel when a character says that Karenin’s problem was his desire for his marriage to Anna to continue after her affair as if nothing had happened — his unwillingness to acknowledge that things might have or could have changed.
I was thinking about the endings of some of your novels. The ending of The Corrections: “She was 75 and she was going to make some changes in her life.” Or the ending of Purity: “It had to be possible to do better than her parents.” On the one hand, you could read those as hopeful; on the other, you could read them as deeply ironic. Do people or characters change in meaningful and substantial and dramatic ways? Or do they — and we — all have the Karenin problem?
My editor at FSG, Jonathan Galassi, when he read the manuscript of Freedom, had just gone through a difficult divorce. And he said, “It does happen that couples can get through something like that and find a way to get back together, but not very often.” Which echoes — I’m not sure if I’ve ever publicly admitted that I have seen a therapist in my life.
Congratulations. This is a safe space.
[Laughs.] She was a wise older woman. And one of the things she memorably said to me was that it’s very hard to change. Most people don’t change at all. If you really, really work, you can change a little bit. And it’s that little bit that’s interesting, of course.
A novel is satisfying if you feel that something has changed in the course of it, that all of this reading and all of the writer’s writing wasn’t in the service of just ending up where you started. I think I have to believe in the possibility that a story can unfold, things can happen, and that a character experiencing those things can take them in and wind up in a slightly different place in which they would make decisions and do things that they might not have done if they have not had that experience. But that’s really hedged — yes, I think people can change.
The larger project of literature, I think, is devoted to the notion that people can’t change or an individual might change a little bit or even substantially, but by and large, people are the same old people. My own theory of literature has to do with that continuity. It is a tragic perspective. All the failed experiments in totalitarianism of the 20th century were predicated on the idea that a better human being was being born. It’s part of the fantasy of, “We’re not going to get catastrophic climate change. Once people really realize what we’re doing to the planet, that will change their behavior.” I feel like literature has always stood outside that — maybe fantasy is too strong a word — but that idea of the perfectibility of species, and found comedy and tragedy in the failure of those projects.
Do you have the same feeling I have, that Karenin is a kind of poignant figure, in a way very much like Casaubon in Middlemarch? I know that they are kind of cousins: The older dry dude married to the totally alive and sexually yearning younger woman. It was a striking difference, reading Anna Karenina at 22 and reading it — when was the last time I reread it? — probably in my 50s. And being shocked to discover that I didn’t like Anna. And in fact, her whole family thinks, “Eh.” It’s not because they’re so proper and she’s offending — it’s just that she’s kind of selfish and a drama queen. And that’s, of course, a great thing. I think it’s a mark of a great book that things look very different when you read them at different ages. But never more striking than when you find this weird sympathy. I of course loathed Karenin when I read him at 22: Oh, I will never be that person.
Perhaps just because I’m getting older, I find myself growing more sympathetic toward the Karenins and Casaubons of the world, possibly against their authors’ designs.
What’s really terrific and heartbreaking about Casaubon is that he is who he is. He has a dry, little, shriveled soul. And yet he’s a person, and you realize, “Of course I’m a reader and I am not a dry shriveled soul, and even less was the writer George Eliot. And we’re all filled with all of that life and all of that thought.” But when you spend time in Casaubon’s point of view, you get this heartbreaking sense of what it would be like to be the person who doesn’t have those capacities. A person who looks around and gets the sense: “Oh, other people are experiencing things in a deeper way or a more vivid way that I never will be able to.”
Can I go back to something that you said earlier about committing to writing three novels in your 60s? This is the most personal question I’ll ask you: Do you feel like you’re writing against your own mortality? I ask this as someone very preoccupied with death.
It’s, oddly, something close to the reverse. I could drop dead tomorrow. I still haven’t ruled out the possibility of the world ending in nuclear war. I don’t know how long I have to live. I don’t know how long I’ll have a world to live in. But I’m very aware that I can’t write very many novels at the level I insist on writing them. Presuming that the world somehow holds it together for another 20 years, presuming that my body holds it together for another 20 years, what am I going to do with all that time? Maybe, if I’m lucky, I can write these two sequel volumes. But it just gets harder and harder to do it at the right level because I don’t like to repeat myself. Stories and characters that are fully alive and urgent to me do not grow on trees. I feel like in some ways, I have too much time.
That is very moving, and I seem to have something in my eye, so I will reorient this conversation by asking you an industry question. You published The Corrections two decades ago, right?
Almost to the day.
How do you think that “literary culture” — I’ve put quotation marks around it — has changed over the past 20 years?
I would say that on the whole, literary culture has held up a lot better than I thought it would. The picture seemed very dark to me in the mid-’90s. And the persistence of a large number of people who are looking for a good book is remarkable, given all of the distractions, given the allure of the visual and the online. I think the world of readers and writers is not only surviving but continuing to thrive. It’s a little bit different from literary culture. I think there’s been a refreshing deposing of the big-named white male writer from a position of dominance within that culture, which was still very much the case when I was coming up, whether it was the academically approved postmoderns or whether it was Mailer, Updike, Bellow, or Roth.
Do you really find it refreshing? I don’t know that anyone has changed the novel in the way the academically approved postmoderns did.
Well, as one of those white male writers …
Yes, I saw a therapist and it turns out …
… you’re a white male writer?!
Super Caucasian and very, very much a male writer.
It’s not a knock against the individual writers; it’s a knock against the way they dominated the competition. And that is a particular kind of achievement, represented in the big book, for example. That was the standard against which all else was measured. I think good riddance to that idea. I think that’s another positive thing that has happened. We are hearing from different kinds of voices in different modes.
Who are the newer, younger writers you admire, since almost everyone we’ve been talking about is dead?
It tends to be individual books more than authors. Someone like Rachel Kushner is not that much younger, but she is younger. I think in her own way, Nell Zink is doing very interesting work.
The Wallcreeper is a great comic novel. I love teaching it.
It’s my favorite of her books, I admit. That just came out of nowhere — really, truly out of left field. And she wrote it in, whatever, three months. And it feels like, “Wow, I just got a sample of soil on Mars. It took three months to get here and now here it is.” It’s like, what the fuck?
I think Zadie Smith is the real deal. She’s the whole package. Akhil Sharma wrote a great novel. I haven’t read Sally Rooney. People seem to speak well of her. But when I saw her described in an ad recently as the Salinger of her generation, I was like, “Oh man. I hope not.”
To go back to dead writers: In 2013 you put together The Kraus Project, a book of translated and annotated essays by the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus. I reread it recently while finishing an annotation project, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the act of being in intimate dialogue with a dead author. What do you think are one’s responsibilities to the dead when you try to resurrect them in the present?
The danger is we know more now about how the world has turned out. People in the past inevitably look less enlightened than we are from our privileged point in 2021. Rather than seeing the dead writer within the context of the time, you’re applying standards that simply hadn’t been invented yet and creating an expectation that they live up to some ideal that had not even been formulated.
I’m actually proud of that Kraus book. I put all that personal material in the footnotes because I thought, “Well, no one’s going to read it anyway, so I might as well admit all these things.” Kraus seemed unbelievably relevant. He himself liked to talk about how no one in his world understood him and how, 100 years from now, he would be understood better. His critique of the nexus of capitalism, technology, and media was unbelievably prescient. At the same time, in a way I hadn’t as a young person, I could see all the things that were super-problematic about him as a person and really as a project. I tried to give him his due, but I also tried to make some excuses: Okay, well, he was living in a sexist time. And his notion of what a woman was — I just happened to read your piece on Simone de Beauvoir in The New Yorker — as that Other that preoccupied de Beauvoir.
I think there’s a way to strike a balance between applying what really is in some cases superior enlightenment: We do know better and have better theories about race and racism and sex and sexism than were available back then. And you can’t check that superior knowledge or insight and simply go back and say, “Rah, rah.” But it’s also important to recognize what was amazing about them at the time.
When I talk to people about annotating or introducing a dead author, I am sometimes asked whether she should be, or would be, “canceled” today. I find that language irritating. But I do ask myself: How do you acknowledge her classism? How do you acknowledge her racism? How do you deal with her only very partial feminism? How do you mobilize those things to show how they resulted in a work of such extraordinary beauty? Because they did.
One of the hallmarks of that new politicized culture you’re describing is the constant renovation of the terms: “Yes, I know we all referred to it as this five years ago, but if you do that, now, that’s retrograde.” The result is this ever-shrinking space in which it’s only the present moment in which it’s possible to speak correctly. It doesn’t matter how well-meaning you are. It doesn’t matter what your politics are. If you’re not speaking in the momentarily approved terms, that’s grounds for suspicion, at least. You can envision a dystopia in which it becomes impossible to read anything that isn’t being produced at that moment, like the reductio ad absurdum is you throw out everything that’s ever been written before like a year ago. But it’s important to remember that that’s happening only really in a marginal element of the culture.
It would be an interesting premise for a sort of Borgesian story or a novel by Calvino, in which all the novels written get thrown out and you start every year from zero and can only write in the authorized language of the present.
I have been directed by my editor to ask you: “What inspired Crossroads?” I confess to feeling a little embarrassed to ask this question, or maybe just suspicious of the assumption that a novel must have a single source.
There was actually a moment of inspiration for the super-novel, the three volumes, which was supposed to be one novel: I met someone.
I’ll go further. I met somebody with a Mennonite background. A contract for a new translation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was just sitting in my email queue. I was overseas and it was waiting for my signature. But I got up at two in the morning; I was in a tropical place. I went outside to get some signal on my phone and wrote to the publisher to say, “Hold the presses on the contract. I’m not going to sign it. I’m not doing it because I met somebody.”
Did the germ include the structure of the trilogy?
No, not the germ. It was just: “I’ve got a character.”
But you don’t want the real-life person to swamp the invented character. The best person to meet for a character is somebody who you’ve spent very little time with, an hour or a couple of days at most, whom you instinctively love and then never see again. That’s perfect, because you want to love the character always.